A combined effort by the Academy Film Archive, the British Film Institute and Janus Film, with funding by the Film Foundation and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (yes, the Golden Globes folks!) has brought about what might be the finest restoration of a classic film this year: Jean Renoir’s extraordinary 1951 drama “The River.” This Technicolor masterpiece is not only one of the most beautifully photographed films of all time, it also one of the most intelligent and moving dramas ever put on the screen.
Based on Rumer Godden’s novel, “The River” takes place in India in the years between the end of World War II and the dawn of an independent India. The center of the film is Harriet, the young teen daughter of a British family who is in what might be described as an awkward age – her emotions and romantic imagination are running far ahead of her still-developing physical appearance. Harriet’s world involves the friendship of two neighboring girls: the slightly older but far more attractive Valerie and the mixed-raced Melanie, who lives with her widower British father.
Into this little world comes a stranger: an American veteran seeking solace following war injuries (he lost a leg in the conflict). The three girls immediately fall in love with him, but each realizes there is a problem: Harriet is clearly too young for the soldier to view her as an object of affection, Melanie’s part-Indian heritage disqualifies her in a period when intercultural romance was not widely accepted, and Valerie is more interested in one-upping Harriet than committing to a serious romance.
“The River” beautifully captures the pain and emotions of teen angst, albeit in an adult and mature manner. The young performers were all non-professionals when Renoir cast them, and he brought out high-class performances which provide a genuine sense of depth for their specific situations: Patricia Waltersâ€™ Harriet is the proverbial ugly duckling on the cusp of achieving swandom, Adrienne Corri’s Valerie is lovely to look at and appropriately harsh on the sensibilities with her know-it-all attitude, and the gorgeous Radha is the living embodiment of the Anglo-Indian quandary of being part of two proud cultures but not entirely welcome in either.
While the story is clearly moving and humane, the physical production is staggering in its beauty. Rarely has on-location Technicolor cinematography been used with such skill and power, and the India captured by Renoir’s camera is a wild riot of color, movement and emotion. This is not mere travelogue filmmaking – “The River” is literally a living/breathing India come to full life. The sounds and vibrancy of the culture are presented without any notion of Western-style exotica: India exists here as a force unto itself, and the viewer is drawn in to its power and majesty. Renoir was wise to shoot the film on location, rather than rely on studio backlot set dressing to capture the ebb and flow of this land. It was also a wise decision to maintain the sense of Indian acoustics by using an Indian-style score by M.A. Partha Sarathy (complete with sitar and tabla) rather than a traditional Western-style musical arrangement.
There is much more to the film, but it would create spoilers to give away too much detail. There is one moment at the very end of the film which is perhaps the most shocking work of intelligence I’ve seen on film. I don’t want to ruin its effect here, but I will say it is the scene that involves the three young girls reading letters. If you’re able to see “The River” in its restored re-release, wait for this moment and savor it – it says volumes without saying a word.